A Great Day in Portland

Story and photo by Timothy Gillis

Last Saturday morning, more than 100 musicians did something they don’t normally do. They got up early on a weekend. They did it for a good cause, though, to raise money for Music and Magic Maine, a local group that donates musical instruments to kids in need.

They gathered on the steps of the Maine Irish Heritage Center to recreate the iconic black and white photograph known as “A Great Day in Harlem,” a 1958 shot of 57 jazz musicians, including Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonius Monk and Count Basie. The photo recreation was the brainchild of John Maclaine and Brian Graham of the Fogcutters, a 19-piece big band that likes to “play the normal repertoire but do more with modern sounds,” said Graham, who plays the sax. Maclaine, who plays trombone, and Graham each came to Portland for college, from Foxboro, Mass. and Bennington, Vt., respectively. They started the Fogcutters two years ago, but the idea for the photo has been with them a long time.

Rob and Shelby Subia from Port City Photography are fans of the band and volunteered to take the photo, organize the musicians, and get image releases. They drove around the city searching for the perfect steps.

“We spent hours looking all around,” Rob says, “looked at City Hall obviously, but the light wasn’t right. And it was pretty sterile. What’s great about the Irish Heritage Center is its character, and of course, the doors. There’s a warmth about the place.”

Proceeds from sales of the photograph, being dubbed “A Great Day in Portland,” will benefit Music and Magic Maine, which invited a Mount Desert Island family to the photo shoot to give them a cello and a keyboard. Michael and Jennifer Miller pulled up with their three children in tow, looking a bit haggard from the three-hour morning drive. Their children perked right up, though, when presented with the instruments as part of the program’s goal to give away more than a dozen instruments this year.

Alex Miller is 14 years old and plays the drums. A freshman at MDI high School, she is already composing music. Emrys, 9, was excited to check out his cello. Rowan, 4, eyed the keyboard. Emrys attends Mount Desert Elementary School in Northeast Harbor. Rowan pursues his musical passions at home.

Since 2009, Amanda Parkhurst, the self-described “creatress” of Music and Magic, has given away more than forty instruments, including an upright bass, flutes, a clarinet, bongos, and djembes, or African hand drums. The waiting list for clients with instrument requests is “a couple of months,” she said. “We’re currently looking for a flute and a left-handed guitar.” All the instruments have gone to kids from Maine, except a guitar and a flute to Guatemala (a child-sized acoustic guitar to a music school there) and a violin to a music teacher in Ethiopia. “We donated a guitar to ‘Guitar Doors.’ Jim Stevenson works with kids at the Longcreek Youth Development Center,” Parkhurst said. She went to school for dance, and while she loves music (her son is named Dylan; her daughter’s name is Garcia), she doesn’t play an instrument herself. So why the idea to start a company that gives instruments to kids?

“I was inspired by Van Lawton,” she explained. “He died in 2009. He played banjo, 12-string guitar. He played at my daughter’s birth. After his death, his bandmates and friends tried to keep his spirit alive.” They talked about creating a non-profit in his name. Parkhurst took the idea and ran with it. “I felt his fire under me. Some bands donated their time. We donated a fiddle to a kid. Did that a couple of times, and it started catching flame,” Parkhurst said. The organization was originally called “Open Sky,” after a song Lawton sang to a few close friends just before he died. Music and Magic now has a book and CD for sale called “The Frog Song,” with lyrics by Lawton and illustrations by Liz Fallon.

The Fogcutters decided on Music and Magic Maine because they loved the idea of keeping the music going by helping young kids get into it.

“We created a Facebook event, originally inviting 150-200 people. Those musicians invited musicians, and we were up to 800 invites,” Graham said. They had 167 confirm for the photo shoot, and ended up with about 118 on the day. The Fogcutters, named after a drink from the 1920’s, said they want to take big band in a new direction.

“With us, you can hear Duke Ellington one song and then Rage Against the Machine the next,” Graham said.

After the photo shoot, the musicians met up at the Big Easy for an early cocktail and appetizers donated by Granny’s Burritos. Port City Photography was able to post an early version of the photograph on a TV screen there, and the rockers cheered the black-and-white version of themselves.

As the party broke up, several musicians came by to thank Maclaine and Graham for organizing the event, buoyed by the knowledge they were part of something historic.

The Fogcutters turned the sights on their next gig: October 26 at the Big Easy Hallowe’en show, the Speakeasy Ball. On December 7, they will play at the State Theater in a show called “Big Band Syndrome.” They select eight local musicians and re-arrange two of their songs (each) for their 19-piece band.

In the meantime, they created a new historical image of musical talent. Copies of the photograph can be purchased at portcityphotography.com.

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